Vanishing Species – The Indian Tree Shrew (Madras Tree Shrew)


An article by Mohan Pai

Indian Tree Shrew
(Also called Madras Tree Shrew)
Anathana ellioti

Pic courtesy: S. Karthikeyan

Is it a primate or a rodent ?
An enigmatic and evolutionarily an unique creature, Madras Tree Shrew is endemic to peninsular India.
There exists a great controversy as to whether Tree Shrews (family Tupaiidae) should be placed in an order with primates or whether they are insectivores.
These creatures are mammals mostly found in south-east Asia. All tree shrews share some common characteristics: relatively small body mass, generally omnivorous (eating arthropods and fruit), the skeleton has an unspecialized placental mammalian pattern, all digits have claws, and the hands and feet are not prehensile. Not all of tree shrews are arboreal, some are mostly terrestrial, and the rest of the subspecies are probably best described as being semi-arboreal. Most tree shrews share many behavioral characteristics with squirrels, so much so that the Malay word tupai is used for both tree-shrews and squirrels.
Tree shrews are also included in the same order with primates by some. Now the characteristics that are shared between tree shrews and primates have been noted as to being primitive amongst placental mammals. Until more evidence can be found the status of where to place the tree-shrew will remain unresolved, so it can not be definitively said that tree shrews are primates. Taxonomists have now assigned it to a separate order – Scandentia.
The Madras Tree shrew (Anathana ellioti), also known as the Indian Tree shrew, is a small mammal that lives in the hilly forests of southern India. The Madras Tree shrew is omnivorous, and has the same kind of unspecified molars as the other Tree shrews in the order Scandentia. They resemble most other tree shrews, however have larger ears, and also are speckled brown, yellow or black over their fur. The main body of fur usually has a reddish tinge and the ventral area is white most of the time – although all these colorations will vary from individual to individual. They are usually 16-18 centimeters in length (6-7 inches) and the tail is usually that same length making the total length about 32-36 (13-17 inches long). On an average they will weigh about 160 grams (5 and a half ounces) although larger specimens have been recorded.
The habitat of the Madras Tree shrew is that of a partially moist to very moist forest habitat, with deciduous trees and shrubs making up the forest floor. However, they can also be found in the southern India slopes, and ravines, along with cultivated fields or pastures. They have proven to adapt to surrounding if the conditions are right and feast on the abundance of insect life in their chosen areas. They eat caterpillars, ants, butterflies, moths, and anything else that will satisfy – they also eat berries and seeds, and have been known to eat the fruit of the Lantana Camara, a very thorny but common shrub. Shrews are mainly nocturnal, but their high metabolic rates can lead to a daily food intake of up to their body weight or more, so they are in constant search of food.
Although the Madras Tree shrew has the word tree in its name, it is in fact uncommon to see one climb a tree, and when they do climb a tree it is usually a means of escape, or of play with younger Tree shrews, and maybe the rare exception of a safe place to self-groom – and to do this they will climb the tree, and then slide down it stretched out. They will repeat this at every angle until they feel sufficiently groomed. The majority of time is spent hidden on the forest floors, travelling under the bush, and inspecting their territories or looking for some insects or seeds to eat.
Madras Trees Shrews also like to build night shelters between soft ground and stones, which can be very complex or very simple. They rarely house more than one, as the tree shrew in general is a solitary species, with the Madras Tree shrew being one that is paired only during certain times of the year if at all. The behavior in regards to mating is not well known, however due to studies of their biology it is assumed that they can produce up to five young at a time. If they are at all similar to other tree shrews they may only spend a short time with their young, and their young will mature rapidly, leaving the nest in three to five months.

A few facts about the Madras Tree shrews
The Madras Tree shrew can be seen as similar to the squirrel, however a difference is that the tree shrew will walk with its tail in an upward curve and a curl that continues but curls the opposite direction.The name Anathana ellioti in which Anathana is the genus comes from the Tamil words Moongil Anathaan, which means â ˜Bamboo Squirrel” while ellioti, the species name, comes from the man who first documented the species – Sir Walter Elliot. The Madras Tree shrew mostly forages in the morning, rather than the evening, as an advantage over other foragers who start later in the day. The Madras tree shrew is listed as Near Threatened (Near Threatened (NT), is close to qualifying for or is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future, or LR/nt), is close to qualifying for or is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
References: “A Field Guide to Indian Mammals” by Vivek Menon, Wikipedia.

 

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